A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ecological and Social Psychology - Starting to look back

I have a paper coming out in the next issue of Ecological Psychology. It is an article written for the 50th anniversary of Gibson's The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. The article lays out the foundation of Ecological Psychology, as I see it, the core insights of the field connected to Gibson's prescient insight regarding what an evolutionary theory of perception must look like. This logic was most well developed in the 1966 book, and because Gibson was not keen on repeating himself, those ideas were not drawn out to nearly the same extent in his later works. Finalizing that article has me thinking again about the relationship between ecological and social psychology.

A decade ago I started a dialog in Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science about the relationship between Ecological Psychology and Social Psychology. It started as my first formal foray into connecting the work of E. B. Holt and J. J. Gibson, and ended up with three articles written by myself, three official comments, and a several articles (both in IPBS and in other venues) that referenced the discussion. My first article was very broad, but the replies focused the exchange on the more radical possibilities of an ecological-social psychology. The start of it al, the lead in for the first paper, was Holt's marvelous metaphor between a coral reef and the peril's of psychological reductionism (especially "bead-theory" approaches to psychology):

Coral reefs in the last analysis consist of positive and negative ions, but the biologist, geographer, or sea-captain would miss his point if he conceived them in any such terms. Yet we are doing the very same thing when we conceive the behavior of a man or animal in the unintegrated terms of neural process… the impinging of stimulus on sense-organ, the propagation of ionization waves along a fiber, their spread among various other fibers, their combining with other similar waves, and eventually causing the lowered or heightened tonus of muscle. All this is happening. But our account has overlooked the most essential thing of all, the organization of these processes. (Holt 1915, p. 161)

Connecting this to the present state of affairs: "Like Holt, ecological psychologists see traditional perceptual researchers as akin to the sea-captain who conceives of the coral reef as nothing more than a collection of positive and negative ions: While neither is wrong that those elements are present, both miss the bigger picture, both miss the natural organization that is essential to the phenomenon they are interested in. The sea-captain literally runs aground; the perceptual researcher does so metaphorically. (p. 54)"

The paper develops three New Realist claims, which can help elucidate theory in Ecological Psychology. Here is the initial presentation of those points, with some notes added (p. 55-56):
1. We experience reality: The New Realists thought that people experienced the world as it is. They took the pragmatists’ assertion that we should only be concerned with things of consequence a step further, claiming that the world is only composed of things of consequence.* That is, all things are observable; all things have a consequence, and hence can, by some means, be observed. The New Realists wanted to set this up as a very broad principle, applying just as well to my seeing the coffee mug on my desk as the consciousness of my office mate, the earth’s orbit, or subatomic particles. From what I can tell, this principle is not intended as an end point, but a beginning: It challenges researchers to explain how such things can be observed. Gibson attacked this challenge head on, though he dealt primarily with a very limited piece of this puzzle, the problem of the perception of simple objects, like my coffee mug.**
* I would phrase this differently now, as my understanding of pragmatism has improved, and as I increasingly see New Realism and its descendants as a positive build within the legacy of pragmatism.

** In connection with a prior narrative of reaching-for and drinking a cup of morning coffee, the intention here was emphasize Gibson's focus on the perception of "normal" sized objects, with properties in the ranges with which people routinely interact. Gibson's basic principles match on closely to those Holt advanced, but their direct empirical contributions were in stark contrast. Both Holt's methodological paralysis and Gibson's innovative success can be strongly attributed to Gibson's having committed to focusing his energies on a tractable part of the agenda.

2. Relations are real, and hence detectable: The New Realists believed that many philosophical muddles could be cleared up, if it were accepted that relations between things were themselves real, i.e., that the relation between two or more real things could be treated as an additional real thing.*** For Holt in particular, this principle was most fancifully used in the deduction: (A) Consciousness is a type of relation between observer and observed; (B) (applying this principle) Consciousness is therefore a real thing; (C) (applying principle 1) Any consciousness must somehow be directly observable. Gibson again was not this ambitious, but clearly made use of the notion that relations were real and could be treated as such. This is particularly obvious in Gibson’s conception of perception as a type of relation between the organism and the environment, and in his assertion that affordances, as relations between individual organisms and their surroundings, were real and perceivable.
*** While this principle is not formally debated any more, I remain convinced that many confusions in psychology are caused by the continuing tacit rejection of this claim.

3. Things are what you see when you see those things: As best as I can tell, the central tenant of the New Realist’s work, or at least Holt’s work, is that “Things are what you see when you see those things”, though it does not appear in exactly those terms. For example: When presented with a piece of work by a modern artisan craftsman, one might see the same object either as a table or a chair. Holt would claim that whatever you are attending to when you see the object as a chair, that is what a chair is; whatever you are attending to when you see the object as a table, that is what a table is; whatever you are attending to when you see the object as art, that is what art is. Later, when developing a more formally behaviorist statement, Holt might have used the criterion “whatever you are responding to” rather than “attending to”. For a third time, Gibson’s scope would not be as broad, but his use of the same underlying principles is clear. Gibson asserted that organisms see the world in terms of its functional utility, and hence, that is what the environment is. A cup is a lift-able, fill-able, drink-out-of-able, etc. object. Hence, something that is a cup for me, might not be a cup for a two year old child, a dog, or a fruit fly, but might be a cup for an elephant.**** Further, as objects have multiple affordances, I might perceive the affordances that make something a cup when I am thirsty, but only perceive the affordances that make it a throw-able object when I am angry. In none of those cases does the object itself change, but there are differences in terms of what properties of the object are detected (or responded to).

**** This can be seen, in a way, as a very concrete implementation of the Umwelt concept.

Connecting points 2 and 3, the obvious question becomes something like: What is it that people see, when they see those around them as psychologically imbued entities? This remains a challenging question, though research has teased the edges in several exciting ways in the last few decades. For example, there has been much research in comparative psychology, trying to tease out the conditions under which our evolutionary relations act towards others based on the others' intentions. That said, we still have not landed upon a good way to discuss such results - the discussed are typically drenched with dualistic implications. The question of how to naturalize psychology remains one of the great unanswered questions of the last century.

Charles, E. P. (2008). The (old) new realism: what Holt has to offer for Ecological Psychology.
Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 43, 53-66 


  1. At Conductual we just published a short article, in Spanish, revisiting and commemorating Gibson book:
    Reseña del libro: Los sentidos considerados como sistemas perceptuales de James J. Gibson (1966) | Conductual https://t.co/v41gyA9t59

  2. At Conductual we just published a short article, in Spanish, revisiting and commemorating Gibson book:
    Reseña del libro: Los sentidos considerados como sistemas perceptuales de James J. Gibson (1966) | Conductual https://t.co/v41gyA9t59